The Township Council recently charged the Planning Board to evaluate whether a lone parcel in the Upper Montclair Village business district — the Bellevue Theatre — warrants an area in need of rehabilitation designation to facilitate its development. The objective is to maintain a historic, but significant non-conforming use by using what, if not done under the ANR law, would otherwise be a case of spot zoning and prohibited.   

Montclair has used redevelopment laws for single-parcel projects in the past. Montclair Community Hospital was such a case, but that removed a non-conforming hospital use into a residential zone. This designation would encourage and subsidize a non-conforming use and may set a precedent in Montclair. Subsidizing the short-term continuity of a historic use does have a precedent — The Wellmont Theater. But, the Wellmont has always been a conforming use.  

One criteria the Planning Board will examine and likely may use as justification is the age of the water and sewer infrastructure. If so, any rehabilitation plan must include a provision to improve the infrastructure, both private and public portions.

Any subsequent adopted plan will have to account for the owner’s stated intention for a phased, multi-year build-out of the theater, first with the retail and residential components to follow — and hence, anticipate any material impact if either of the latter, desired uses are not implemented.

The council will certainly provide tax relief as part of the deal. Typically, it is a five-year, stepped phase-in (e.g. 20/40/60/80/100%) of the assessed value of the improvements. While not technically a tax abatement, such a schedule effectively relieves the property owner of two years worth of property tax obligations for any improvements above what exists there now.

Lastly, the non-conforming use here is a use with questionable longevity. It was abandoned as a use for many years because of economics and changing consumer habits. The Township Council does not want to pursue the alternative, to change our underlying neighborhood commercial zoning to allow for this use, as the use is fundamentally inconsistent with and undesirable in all our other neighborhood commercial zones. I suspect the property owner’s preference is not to pursue the route and vagaries of variance approvals.

We have utilized numerous area in need of rehabilitation designations with mixed results. We have learned a lot with each one. The successful ones all relied heavily on outside expertise. As we are doing this one parcel review in-house, we should ensure an inclusive review that allows a free flow of contributions from all our in-house experts, along with their appropriate accountability through to the finalization of any actual plan agreement.

The devil is always in the details.

Frank Rubacky


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